Commentary: Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager, isn't ready to concede Congress

Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)

As a kid, David Plouffe played a game called Landslide, the goal of which is to get to 270 electoral votes. Not surprisingly, he often would find himself playing the game alone.

In 2008, as much as anyone other than maybe the candidate himself, Plouffe was the architect of Barack Obama's ascendancy to the White House. He was Obama's campaign manager and political chess player who helped keep Obama several moves ahead of the competition.

Now, he is among the Democratic strategists most directly responsible for stopping what many pundits think will be a Republican tsunami on Nov. 2. He's not so sure.

House Republican leader John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell may be picking out colors and measuring drapes for their new offices. Plouffe suggests that before they move in, perhaps the election ought to be held.

"I don't buy the purveyors of gloom," Plouffe said.

Plouffe was in town last week to talk about his best-seller, "The Audacity to Win," his insider's account of how a rookie U.S. senator, who only a few years earlier was an Illinois state senator, became president.

I interviewed Plouffe for a California Lectures program, to be aired soon on Capital Public Radio, and spent a good deal of time with him off stage.

Plouffe had been politicking in Iowa the day before, spent the day on Monday in back-to-back meetings, and planned to rise early to fly to Oregon the following day. If he was wrung out, it wasn't evident.

As he was throughout the 2008 campaign, Plouffe was nimble and disciplined. On- and off-stage, he knew exactly what he wanted to do – sell his president, whose popularity is faltering; his party, which is on the defensive; and his book, which is highly readable.

Along the way, he offered insights:

On being in charge: "A presidential campaign when you're going through it seems like the hardest thing imaginable. It is a walk in the park compared to the presidency, particularly in these times."

On a 2012 Sarah Palin presidential campaign: "I should break out my Palin for President button. We should be that lucky."

On Meg Whitman's campaign for governor: "Everyone who is interested in politics is paying attention to what they're doing."

On Jerry Brown's campaign: Pause, silence.

Well, at least polls suggest that he is even with Whitman, despite her having spent $150 million.

Plouffe recites statistics that remain hard to comprehend. In 2008, Obama barely edged Sen. John McCain among people who had turned out in the 2004 election between Sen. John Kerry and George W. Bush, 50 percent to 49 percent. Obama won by vastly expanding the size of the electorate.

There were 20 million new voters in 2008. Among that group, Obama won 73 percent to 27 percent. Those voters are key to the Democrats' 2010 election chances.

Once the 2008 campaign ended, Obama established Organizing for America, an arm within the Democratic National Committee devoted to keeping the millions of volunteers and new voters engaged in politics.

Plouffe has set a goal for the organization to contact 15 million people who voted for the first time in 2008, including a million in California, and urge them to once again cast ballots.

"In most states and districts, we have enough Democrats. If we can get them out, we can win," Plouffe told the California Lectures audience at the Crest Theatre.

Plouffe pegs the number of competitive House races at 70. There are 15 competitive Senate campaigns, including the one between Barbara Boxer and Republican Carly Fiorina, and two dozen gubernatorial races, among them the Brown-Whitman contest.

Plouffe has little doubt that Democrats will lose seats, partly because they won so many close races in 2006 and 2008. They simply have too much turf to defend. Republicans have money, energy and momentum.

"They're coming out to vote. Some of them may be wearing tinfoil hats. But they're coming out to vote," Plouffe said.

Don't be so quick to write off Democrats. Republicans have an uncanny ability to stick forks into themselves, as happened last week in Plouffe's home state of Delaware, where insurgent Christine O'Donnell, described by some in her own party as nutty and having a checkered background, won the Republican primary.

In 2008, Obama amassed a vast army of volunteers who provided invaluable face-to-face contact with prospective voters. The campaign raised $750 million, an astonishing sum that allowed Obama to campaign everywhere. That combination of money and volunteers is the Holy Grail for any campaign.

As we in the news business know all too well, people are finding information in many nontraditional places. Many ignore newscasts and newspapers and get what they seek through social networking. It makes politics ever more challenging.

"You've got to be on people's televisions, on their radio dial, on their Internet, on their mobile devices, at their doors, on their phones, at their community events. Because you're never sure when that moment is that you can make a connection," Plouffe said.

In California, Whitman's campaign team clearly has studied Obama and Plouffe's playbook.

The billionaire Republican gets most attention for her heavy television advertising. It is something to behold. But Whitman's campaign uses all manner of media, not all of it mass. She is in the mail, on text messages, the phone, the Internet, at people's doors, and more. It's all interconnected.

A middle-aged man who declines to state a party preference and votes in every election might get a mailer, but only if the Whitman campaign is able to overlay those details with other information like magazine subscriptions.

If I were a paranoid sort, I would think that Whitman is stalking me on the Internet. I cannot Google a news or political site without having a Whitman ad pop up. She even intruded when I checked a baseball score the other night.

This doesn't necessarily mean she will win. There still are 2.3 million more Democrats than Republicans in California. "In California, the numbers are just sitting there to win the election," Plouffe said.

But only if Democrats turn out. That is a very big if, here and across the country.